WHY DID SHE SINK? Seven men on a secret Cold War mission died, somewhere out in the Santa Barbara Channel, when their boat sank 50 years ago. Three others cheated death.
Widows, children, relatives, and friends of the seven gathered here last weekend for a first-ever commemoration honoring the men. To this day, no one knows why the Marie sank on that fateful voyage to Santa Cruz Island. Only four of the bodies were recovered.
When the Marie set off from Santa Barbara Harbor on the foggy morning of June 7, 1960, three of the men scheduled to be aboard the converted World War II landing craft had to remain on shore. That quirk of fate that kept them back in Santa Barbara saved their lives.
Bud Bottoms, ordered instead to work on a deadline project at General Electric’s Tempo think tank, went on to become a sculptor whose work includes the beloved Stearns Wharf dolphins.
Bob Bryant, a diver and S.B. City College student at the time, is now Santa Barbara’s preeminent jeweler. That day, with his gear already on board, he had to take a test in “bonehead English,” as he terms it. “Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than smart,” he told me.
Bob Wilke, then an engineer at Raytheon R&D in Goleta, had to stay behind to test water samples brought back by the Marie the week before from a test site.
“I was broken-hearted” at not being able to go that day, Bottoms said. The deaths of his close friends and his narrow escape “totally changed my life. I was in a funk for a long time.
“Why am I here? There must be a purpose for me.” Bottoms, a diver, became fixed with the beauty of dolphins and began sculpting them. “That’s why I’m here, to use my skills.
“I lost almost everyone I knew,” Bottoms said. “They were the guys I spent my time with. We were all young, with a whole bunch of kids, young fathers. We hunted and fished every weekend. There were so many adventures we were on.”
Exactly what the secret mission was isn’t clear, but according to Bottoms and others, it had to do with placing infrared “communicators” 30- to 65-feet-deep as part of an experiment aimed at detecting enemy submarines.
A federal judge who awarded $497,666 to four of the families found Raytheon not responsible; the other defendants were the Marie’s owner and her operator. The cause was never determined, according to Teresa Newton-Terres, whose father, 29-year-old Diego Terres, was a Raytheon engineer. His body was never found. She has extensively researched the sinking and organized last weekend’s commemoration.
The captain was certified to carry only six persons, not seven, and the boat had not been inspected in two years, she said. Built in 1943 as a diesel LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel), it found its way to Santa Barbara and was renovated with a prow as a fishing boat. The boat had no radio.
A Coast Guard investigator “opined that a structural failure could have occurred,” according to a Santa Barbara Maritime Museum exhibit, “since the vessel’s underwater body had not been inspected since 1958. The large concentration of weight on a small area of the cockpit and afterdeck would tend to raise stresses for which the vessel was not designed. This of course does not preclude the possibility of collision with a submerged object or an unidentified vessel.”
Bottoms believes that in the fog the boat might have hit one of the long, submerged cables used by tugs to pull barges, and the boat’s bottom was torn off.
Another theory, Wilke told me, “was that they hit a log and bashed in the hull. Or hit a whale.” Or somehow hit a partly submerged Russian sub some believe might have been spying on Vandenberg AFB missile launches, he added. “Or was hit by a torpedo,” considering its secret research.
Deaths of the local men hit the town hard, pain that was evident at the weekend ceremonies. The dead: Dr. Niel F. Beardsley, 68, Raytheon staff scientist and reputed “father of infrared” technology. Dale Howell, 32, a Santa Barbara High grad. Paul T. Lovette, 37, a guest. Harold H. Mackie Jr., Raytheon engineer and Santa Barbara High grad. Jim McCaffrey, 30, captain of the Marie. James Russell, 32, Raytheon engineer. Jim Terres Jr., 29, Raytheon engineer and Santa Barbara High grad.
WRITERS CONFERENCE SOLD: Monte Schulz, son of the late Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz, has purchased the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robin Riblet, on Tuesday, June 8, approved the $27,000 sale. Monte plans to hold the next conference next June. There was no conference this year or last due to prior owner Marcia Meier’s bankruptcy.
STRESS RELIEF: Okay, the election’s over. Time to have a laugh. Ensemble Theatre is staging Loot, one of those absurd British farces. Out at the Circle Bar B Dinner Theatre, Susie and David Couch offer the wacky The Girl in the Freudian Slip. Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre Company is staging the short but sweet In All Honesty, a delightful love story written by 18-year-old Dos Pueblos High student Quinn Sosna-Spear.